The Cuban national team taking the field in Havana against Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays would look different if not for the defection of two dozen stars to the U.S.-based league.
Many of those who defected in the past 20 years represented Cuba in international competition during a run that included three Olympic gold medals and two silver medals between 1992 and 2008.
The national team’s last major international victory was at the 2007 Pan Am Games.
Top player before fleeing
One of the players who fled is 28-year-old outfielder Dayron Varona, who played seven years in Cuba’s top league before leaving on a boat with his mother for Haiti in 2013.
He eventually signed with the Rays, and while his prospects of making the team’s MLB roster this season are low, he is among the 34 players chosen to go with the team to Cuba.
With so many players, there is no guarantee that Varona, or any other Ray for that matter, will appear in the game. But the group in Havana does include the team’s top stars.
The Rays named Matt Moore the starting pitcher. Twelve-game winner Chris Archer and closer Brad Boxberger, who saved 41 games last year, could follow Moore on the mound.
Behind them, third baseman and longtime team leader Evan Longoria is on the roster along with second baseman Logan Forsythe and outfielders Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Guyer.
The game also features a nod to the past in both Cuba and the United States.
Two of the best players to come out of Cuba and make the jump to the major leagues — pitcher Luis Tiant and outfielder Jose Cardenal — are being honored as special guests.
Tiant played 19 seasons, primarily for the Boston Red Sox, while Cardenal played 18 years for a number of franchises, the longest with the Chicago Cubs.
Joining them as special guests are two Americans: shortstop Derek Jeter, who won five World Series with the New York Yankees, along with his former manager and a longtime player himself, Hall of Famer Joe Torre.
Cardenal and Torre have their own history, having played together with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1970, and with Cardenal serving as a first base coach under Torre during his time with the Yankees.
The Tampa Bay (Florida) Rays beat Cuba's national team 4-1 at Estadio Latinoamericano.